Interview with Professor Ernesto Castañeda: Meet the Professor

Bio: Ernesto Castañeda is the Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, Founding Director of the Immigration Lab, and Graduate Program Director of the MA in Sociology, Research, and Practice. He conducts research on migration, urban issues, health disparities, marginalized populations, and social movements. He compares immigrant integration and ethnic political mobilization in the U.S. and Western Europe.

1. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Researcher, writer, teacher.

2. Can you share a bit about your upbringing and early life experiences that may have influenced your interest in sociology and migration studies?

I grew up in a large city where many people came from other parts of the country. My mom came from another state, as did my paternal grandfather. That was not a big deal growing up, just a fact. I moved away from home to attend university and have moved several times since then. That was not an issue, just a fact. I am not unique in this experience. That is what makes migration a worthy topic of study. Politicians try to make a great deal about something both common and rare. People have been migrating since humans appeared on earth, but in recent decades, less than 3.5% of people live in a country different than the one they were born in. Undocumented migrants in the U.S. are also less than 3.5% of the total population.

3. Could you tell us more about The Immigration Lab and its goals? How can individuals, including students or researchers, get involved or collaborate with this initiative?

The main goal of the Immigration Lab is to conduct research about migration and to write about it in an accessible manner to dispel many of the negative myths that people have about migration as a social problem. People can write to immigrationlab at american dot edu to volunteer or submit a blog post. We are always looking for donors and supporters to pay students and staff.

4. You conducted extensive ethnographic observation and interviews with immigrants and their children over 14 years for your first book, “A Place to Call: Immigration Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona.” What were some of the most memorable or impactful moments or stories that you encountered during your fieldwork?

I still remember with sadness how isolated many Frenchmen of North African origin felt living in the Parisian metropolitan region. They were at ease with the language, culture, the streets, and public transportation. Nonetheless, they felt excluded and looked down upon by mainstream society. That feeling of discomfort and unspoken tension is still hard to forget.

5. Given your expertise in social movements, where do you see the future of social activism and protest movements heading in the coming years, particularly in light of the global challenges we face today?

As we define in our book Social Movements 1768-2018, social movements are about whole categories of people who are denied equal rights in a polity and who are trying to change power dynamics and the way mainstream societythinks about who they are and how that justifies their exclusion. Undocumented immigrants are still systematically excluded in the United States and many other countries. Immigrant rights are one of the greatest civil rights challenges of our time. Clearly, the search for equality for Black people is still a work in progress.

6. Given the current sociopolitical landscape, with ongoing debates about immigration and border policies, where do you see the future of these issues heading, and what areas should policymakers and activists focus on to address the challenges highlighted in your book?

Where these issues move in the future is up to all the citizens of a given place. They can choose to deal with migration in a humane or cruel manner. We can receive people like we did for those displaced during the war on Ukraine rather than refuse to give asylum to those scaping persecution in the Global South. The Global North needs workers, the question is whether they can come safely with visas and their families or whether they must risk their lives and separate from their families in order to work abroad in peace.

7. Can you share the role your family has played in your academic and professional journey, and in what ways has your background or family experiences influenced your work? Do you have any sociologists in your family?

No, there are no official sociologists in my family. But nobody can have a career without the support of their family. In large degree, I owe being able to do much of what I do to my parents, spouse, co-authors, and all those who have taught me and helped me across the years. It does take a village to raise a child, and it takes a city to support a productive academic author.

8. What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in sociology or related fields, especially in terms of conducting impactful research and contributing to the field?

Write a lot, write some more, rewrite—be perseverant, address misunderstandings you see that have a negative impact on people and society, and use data and clear argumentation to disprove them and help others. 

9. Open access and the cost of academic publications have been a concern. What are your thoughts on the open-access movement, and how can it be promoted further?

The Center of Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) has a working paper series where we pay for the service in order to make the working papers professional and accessible around the world. CLALS and the Immigration Lab also have blogs to communicate ideas clearly and succinctly to a general public. I have published many papers in open access journals and have edited many special issues in them. We should value open access more than the prestige of an old and established journal with a low acceptance rate and long wait times before publication. At a time when publishing PDFs online is close to zero, scientific organizations, universities, and other non-profits should provide acceptable options to the old for-profit publication model of academic journals.  

10. How can academics make sure that regular people can easily understand and benefit from their research? What steps can they take to connect with the general public?

Sociologists and other social scientists study things that we create in society—they are the product of what people do. Therefore, people should be interested in principle, and remember that together we can change patterns and outcomes. It is often hard to disentangle members of society from what we call “the social.” It takes special skills to, for example, tell workers that they are not experts in work even if they do it almost daily, or that not all immigrants are experts on migration. It takes some distancing and looking at the bigger picture, it takes creative thinkers and good writers to do so.

Dear Readers,

We extend our sincere gratitude to Ernesto Castañeda for participating in our “Meet the Professor” initiative by Sociology Group. If you would like to suggest any professors for interviewing, please write to us. To learn more about how to participate in our “Meet the Professor” Insight Interview Series, please refer to this article: Link to the Article.

Thank you for your continued support!

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